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Fighting for respect

U.S. facing a determined, reemerging England squad

Posted: Friday September 21, 2007 10:54AM; Updated: Friday September 21, 2007 11:39AM
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Striker Kelly Smith has scored three goals for England during the World Cup, but disappeared for stretches against Germany.
Striker Kelly Smith has scored three goals for England during the World Cup, but disappeared for stretches against Germany.

TIANJIN, China -- At his daily meeting with the press on Friday ahead of Saturday's quarterfinal game with England, U.S. coach Greg Ryan, a defender in the old NASL, was asked if he found it interesting that during his playing career he was looking up to English footballers and now, during his coaching career, England is looking up to his U.S. squad in women's soccer.

Ryan's answer was diplomatic -- something along the lines of, "They're not looking up to anyone" -- but the question raised an interesting point, specifically that, at least in China for the next couple of days, the boot is on the other foot.

The English soccer press, and many English fans, have just a little bit of a superiority complex when it comes to Americans and soccer. The jumping-off point is usually the fact that we call it soccer (though the Brits never seem to mention that the term is short for "association football" and is of British origin, so there).

In 2006 The Guardian's outstanding Web site did a minute-by-minute summary of a U.S. World Cup game in American-speak -- at one point declaring the score "one soccer point to no score" -- that was brilliant. There have also been miles of column inches written about the irony of David Beckham going to play football in a country that doesn't appreciate the game -- many of which have been ill-informed and less-than-brilliant.

But in the women's game, it is the other way around -- at least for the time being. England has never had a Brandi Chastain moment (they've only played in one World Cup before this one) and the women's game is at the added disadvantage of being the distaff version of the national pastime.

This isn't like the U.S., where at times interest in the lasses has rivaled the attention paid the lads. (Five English clubs have shuttered their women's teams in the past two years, including Charlton, which disbanded its team just months after it appeared in the '07 Women's FA Cup final.) But coach Hope Powell has the team moving in the right direction, as evidenced by its fine run of results in World Cup qualifying and in its three games in China.

The press in England has latched onto the team, with several pieces contrasting the fortunes of the women and the English men, who have struggled in qualifying for Euro 2008. "Ah, thank God for England's women footballers," one declared. The Guardian's story following England's 0-0 draw with reigning champs Germany appeared under the headline: "Heroic England hold Germany at bay."

Even the men's players have gotten in on the act. English national goalkeeper David James wrote a column detailing how his teammates have been following all of England's games that, if it wasn't mildly patronizing, was at least the kind of thing the English press would take a Yank to task for if one made a similar remark about the men's game. (For instance, talking about striker Kelly Smith, James wrote: "One of the lads put it deftly when he said: 'She's a manly player -- without looking at all manly,' which made me chuckle.")

Before the tournament, Ryan was touting England as a sleeper. "I watched them in the Euros [in '05]," he said. "I thought they were a very good team. They should have gone out of their group. They were much better than [world No. 4] Denmark but lost 2-1 on two late goals. They played Denmark off the park and were very unlucky. They were very good then and they're even better now." The teams met in the Four Nations tournament in January and played to a 1-1 draw -- though the U.S. was playing without five starters.

It's England that will be shorthanded on Saturday. In a curious bit of coaching, Powell kept midfield anchor Fara Williams on the pitch against Argentina with the outcome settled despite the fact that she picked up a yellow card in an earlier game. Williams was booked in the 61st minute, meaning that she'll have to sit out the quarterfinal.

Said Ryan, who pulled his right back, Christie Rampone, out of the final group game early because she had a yellow, "You wonder, How does she get a second yellow when England was up 3-0 and had already advanced to the next round? Why was she still on the field?"

"The one question they have is how does England play without Fara in the midfield?" said Ryan. "I'm a big fan of hers, not only how she plays, but her intensity and her leadership in the midfield. England's deep enough that they can find some different solutions, but it's like us playing without Abby Wambach or Kristine Lilly. We can fill that position, but it's really hard to fill with the same character. But England is strong and they're not going to miss a beat."

Williams' absence will make it tougher for England to get Smith into the game. The striker has three goals in the tournament, including two marvelous finishes against Japan. But against Germany, she wasn't much of a factor. But then again, no one really was. In a game played on something resembling a swamp, the teams combined for one clear-cut chance, which English keeper Rachel Brown saved with her foot.

Without Williams, England will likely bunker down and try to gut out a similar result. They'll probably play a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation and try to keep the U.S. from scoring.

Yes, it's a bit ironic, an English team actually hoping for penalty kicks. If England does push it that far, don't bet against the U.S. The only blemish on Ryan's record in his 49 games running the show came against Germany in the '06 Algarve Cup, when the U.S. lost on PKs. The team has been practicing them ever since; whenever they play against a boys' team, which is something Ryan does frequently, they almost always have a penalty shootout after the game.

So will it come to that? The guess here is no. England does have some size, but the U.S. is due to convert a set piece at some point. And the American offense, which hasn't been clicking, is also bound to sort itself out. It should only take one goal to open things up. If the U.S. takes the lead, England is going to have to push forward, and if that happens, the talent gap is going to get them.

The call: The U.S. scores early and tacks on a second in the second half (from Wambach and Lilly), then hangs on to win 2-0.

The rest of the forecast

Germany vs. North Korea: This is where we find out how good North Korea really is. After they drew the U.S., the Koreans were anointed a potential tournament champ.

Germany has been tough to read. They're not as good as the score line indicated in their 11-0 beatdown of Argentina (the game was played against a terrible keeper and a coach who insisted on continuing to attack) and they're likely much better than the 0-0 score line with England (the game was played in impossible conditions). It could be the game of the tournament.

Germany 2, North Korea 1.

Norway vs. China: They didn't look great against New Zealand, but I wouldn't bet against the home team -- especially given the rowdy crowd we saw on Thursday night.

China 1, Norway 1. China wins on penalties.

Brazil vs. Australia: Will the Matildas extract revenge for the Aussie men, who were knocked out of the World Cup by Brazil on a bad penalty-kick decision by the ref? In a word, no.

Brazil 3, Australia 0.